Antonio Calderara, Figura al Sole (Figure in the Sun), 1949, oil on wood panel, 6 1/4 x 5 1/8".

Antonio Calderara, Figura al Sole (Figure in the Sun), 1949, oil on wood panel, 6 1/4 x 5 1/8".

Antonio Calderara

Antonio Calderara, Figura al Sole (Figure in the Sun), 1949, oil on wood panel, 6 1/4 x 5 1/8".

The first work one saw after entering this show was a well-considered introduction to the art of Antonio Calderara (1903–1978): a small, slightly vertical composition of rectangles reminiscent of the terrain around Lake Orta in the far north of Italy, where the artist led his reclusive life. The surface of this painting, Studio, 1959, is sharply divided into a pattern of right angles using delicate shades of gray, blue, white, and pink, which can be viewed either as an almost monochromatic abstraction or as a kind of landscape with a house in the foreground, a lake in the middle, and a house on the far shore. The radical spirit in which Calderara drove his pictures to the very edge of visibility by oscillating between figuration and pure sign or form reveals his cognizance of a wide historical horizon—his thinking cannot be reduced to an exclusive commitment to either modernism or any of its supposed alternatives. In their strict clarity, his compositions are indebted to Piero della Francesca as much as to Josef Albers.

Alongside nearly abstract works such as this one, it was almost a shock to see not only Calderara’s wide-awake Autoritratto (Self-Portrait), 1951, composed in shades of gray with a Constructivist severity, with a nearly geometrical curve to the eyebrows and a slight diagonal tilt to the face—but also, beside it, Figura al Sole (Figure in the Sun), 1949, the profile of a knitter with a headscarf seated in front of a grove of trees that opens onto a wide landscape. In the latter work, the shimmering application of color and the reddish-orange accent of a basket lid at the woman’s feet recall Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884. Nearly all the pictures in the show were miniatures, and Calderara’s use of this format cultivates not only a magical effect of distance but also an intimacy that draws one in to look at them close up. Beginning in 1959, Calderara’s formal repertoire became much more reductive, with almost-monochromatic pictures exhibiting only a few framing or organizing bars, allover patterns of dots, sectioned-off interior areas, and sometimes lines or frames inserted emblematically and recalling architectural structures, which can be understood differently in each individual work.

The vast spectrum of variations in recurring motifs that make Calderara’s pictures so unobtrusively distinctive reminds me of the paintings of Raoul De Keyser. Despite the contrast between the measured solemnity of the southern European artist and the Flemish painter’s spontaneous gestures, the two are united by their quest for a valid picture that can emerge unexpectedly from a rigorous working process in a way that transcends ideological preconceptions. De Keyser also keeps a fluid border between figurative forms and independently developing, multivalent abstract rhythms. Both artists responded to the repeated historical questioning of their medium with a painterly intensification that does not bracket out the fragility and endangered status of painting but instead gives it new strength. Calderara painted the ephemeral quality of light into his pictures, and as we look at them, they seem to flare up again into brightness just as they are on the point of fading into darkness. They are like those faint sounds whose presence makes the silence audible. By delicately differentiating itself from emptiness, painting can fight against its own disappearance.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.